We’d started the trip by stopping at a com pho shop somewhere along the road from Hanoi to the city of Tuyen Quang.
They’d stopped serving but the old lady cooked us piles of food for VND30,000 per person: a mound of fried tofu and fatty fatty pork slices sautéed in tomatoes and onions and a bit of garlic in a tomato-onion sauce, incredible stir-fried bitter melon that was so incredibly bitter and a goopy mashed crabmeat soup with tiny green leaves in it.
The husband provided us with warm Hanoi beers and ice and told us he used to train work horses during the war. We had a few bamboo water pipes of strong tobacco (thuoc lao in the dieu cay) with our finishing tea and toothpicks. The old lady pulled the long bong to her side and ripped the shit out of it as we saddled up, bowed and headed off.
We drove for hours further from the city and deeper into the hills until the amount of beautiful dirt roads I wanted to drive down — but passed up in the name of “progress” or some other bullshit — overwhelmed me and I took a sharp left up a muddy path that looked like it might lead to a pagoda at the top of a hill overlooking a village.
The tiny hamlet was beautiful – rows of tiered paddies, paths and wood-mud-concrete houses like layers of a cake that slid off each other – and all but silent and seemingly deserted.
We couldn’t find a road up to the pagoda but finally drove close enough to see a stairway leading straight up the hill to it.
We parked our bikes there and the sounds of children laughing and dogs barking interrupted the silence as we drained our lizards on the path. Pretty soon children across the way were yelling “hello” and indiscernible shouts and by the time we were half-way up the stairs – a lovely view of the hamlet up against the highway – it seemed the whole village young and old had come out of the hillside to yell things at us and each other.
It bordered on commotion until we reached the top and things quieted down. An old lady in purple made her way from a house a few hundred meters down the village trail to the head of the stairs and started walking up.
She had the key to the pagoda and as she fiddled with the lock a younger ecstatic fellow named Tam pulled up from out of nowhere on a motorbike. He was about 40, with his arms and chest covered in indecipherable homemade tattoos exposed by his open short-sleeve shirt. The first thing he said was:
“How long will you be here? You can stay at my house.”
He told us he’d been a drug addict, criminal and prisoner for 20 years until he found this old lady and the pagoda that he helped her keep up.
“Everyone knows me in the village,” he said. “My wife and children are very happy and the village is very happy.”
He gave us incense to burn and all four of us lit the joss and bowed the three sacred sets of three in front of the colorful altar.
“I never know if I’m praying right,” Daniel said as we walked out the door. “How do you do it right?”
I translated and Tam was quick to reply:
“You can’t get it wrong. Any way to pray is the right way.”
…ah, back in the mountains again…
When we bade goodbye, the disciple-prophet insisted on showing us the way back to the highway and there we shook hands again and again and said goodbye again and again until no-one – including the school girls giggling and pointing at us from the drink stand across the road – could stand it anymore.
Having previously vowed to stop at as many pagodas and mia da shops as possible during the trip, we later pulled up to a wood table and a few plastic chairs under a tarp by a small garden and house with a nuoc mia machine parked out front.
The road was getting a bit smaller and things were beginning to get a bit more dramatically mountainous, steep, curvy, bigger trees…
I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the young girl manning the machine in tight pink pajamas wasn’t just as attractive as the old sugar cane machine itself. She had a friendly face that was too shy to fully smile but without an ounce of invitation lost. We sat down and ordered 2 glasses of fresh sugar cane juice.
“That’s VND4,000,” she said, making sure everything was clear, all the while me thinking that she meant for each.
Then she walked slowly – beautifully lazily – back to the garden and hacked down a live 3-meter shoot of sugar cane. All of a sudden there was an older shirtless gentleman with salt and pepper hair and glasses seated at our table. He was barefoot and in shorts.
“Hello comrade,” he said. Chao dong chi…What an incredibly beautiful word!
“You’ll have to wait a few minutes,” said the girl, who was busy shaving the skin off the cane with an ingenious medieval peeler. “The machine is broken so I have to do it by hand,” she lamented.
And woe was her! That sugar cane is not easy to crush with the machine broken. We let her crank the godamn gears on the thing by herself for the first half-glass but after that Daniel and I took turns doing it (like all simple tasks I see small women doing in Vietnam, it was hard-as-shit and very quickly super-tiring).
The old man chuckled and the girl let slip a sly smile and we took a couple of pictures of the funny scene.
We got to talking with the old guy whom she called her older uncle and it turned out he had done a little bit of di phuoting and lang thanging himself back in the day.
“He’s very strong,” said the girl. “Very healthy. He rode from here to Thanh Hoa on his bicycle.”
His gleaming face cracked a wide smile.
“500 kilometers!” said the girl.
“10 days,” he said.
“With who?” I asked.
“Alone!” he laughed.
“For the war?”
“No, for fun, for exercise! Just wandering! Di lang thang thoi!”
“It was only 5 years ago,” said the girl, meaning the guy was 55 when he did it.
I was happy in this place and so ordered another two glasses and started packing the big bamboo water pipe.
This time I added a little extra medicine, figuring we could risk hanging out here for a bit and maybe I could even become this girl’s husband.
I became a slave to the idea as we smoked and drank and I devised wild fantasies about her and I’s future life together out here in the cane fields.
She said she wasn’t married and I said I didn’t believe her. The joke seemed to end there. Her sad face deferred to the old man, who confirmed, in what I then thought again was again a semi-joking way, that she was indeed not married.
She could have been 17 or 22 or 27, but she probably wasn’t single. Still, I vowed, in imaginary blood from my imaginary heart, that I would return one day and ask her for phone number.
The medicine had worked its spontaneous magic and instead of sticking around, we kickstarted the engines and left their lives as curtly and abruptly as we’d arrived.